Groups at Risk

There are three major types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes. All three types of diabetes share the same basic characteristic — the body’s inability either to make or to use insulin. Your body needs insulin, a hormone, to be able to use glucose, which comes from the food you eat, for energy. Without enough insulin, glucose stays in the blood, creating high levels of blood sugar. Over time, this buildup causes damage to your kidneys, heart, nerves, eyes, and other organs.

One out of every three people with diabetes is unaware they have this chronic condition. According to the American Diabetes Association, that amounts to about 7 million Americans. Might you be one of them? Read on to see what your risk for diabetes really is.

Risk Factors for Type 1 Diabetes

With type 1 diabetes, which starts in childhood, the pancreas stops producing insulin. Insulin is a hormone your body needs to be able to use the energy — glucose — found in food. The primary risk factor for type 1 diabetes is a family history of this lifelong, chronic disease.

  • Genetics and family history. Having family members with diabetes is a major risk factor. The American Diabetes Association recommends that anyone with a first-degree relative with type 1 diabetes — a mother, father, sister, or brother — should get screened for diabetes. A simple blood test can diagnose type 1 diabetes.
  • Diseases of the pancreas. Injury or diseases of the pancreas can inhibit its ability to produce insulin and lead to type 1 diabetes.
  • Infection or illness. A range of relatively rare infections and illnesses can damage the pancreas and cause type 1 diabetes.

Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body can’t use the insulin that’s produced, a condition called insulin resistance. Though it typically starts in adulthood, type 2 diabetes can begin anytime in life. Because of the current epidemic of obesity among children, type 2 diabetes is increasingly found in teenagers.

Here are the risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes.

  • Obesity or being overweight. Diabetes has long been linked to obesity and being overweight. Research at the Harvard School of Public Health showed that the single best predictor of type 2 diabetes is being obese or overweight.

Obesity and diabetes are both epidemic in the U.S. The most-used measure for obesity is BMI, which stands for body mass index. BMI is a ratio, and can be determined using standard tables of height and weight. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher defines obesity. Here are some examples of how BMI is used:

  • A woman who’s 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 120 pounds has a BMI of 20.
  • A woman who’s 5 feet 5 inches and weighs 180 pounds has a BMI of 30. She would be diagnosed as “obese.”
  • A woman who’s 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 240 pounds has a BMI of 40. She would be diagnosed with “extreme obesity” or as having “clinically severe obesity.”

Other risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes include:

  • Impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glucose. Prediabetes is a milder form of diabetes that’s sometimes called impaired glucose tolerance. It can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. Prediabetes is a major risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. The CDC estimates that as many as 79 million children and adults in the U.S. have prediabetes.
  • Insulin resistance. Type 2 diabetes often starts with cells that are resistant to insulin. That means they are unable to take in insulin as it moves glucose from the blood into cells. With insulin resistance, the pancreas has to work overly hard to produce enough insulin so cells can get the energy they need. This involves a complex process that eventually leads to type 2 diabetes.
  • Ethnic background. Diabetes occurs more often in Hispanic/Latino Americans, African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Alaska natives. Note that this relates to American ethnic backgrounds, but that doesn’t make the risk factor any less applicable for Arab ethnicities.
  • High blood pressure. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for diabetes. High blood pressure is generally defined as 140/90 mm Hg or higher. Low levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and high triglyceride levels also put you at risk.
  • History of gestational diabetes. If you developed diabetes while you were pregnant, you’ve had what is called gestational diabetes. Having had gestational diabetes puts you at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
  • Sedentary lifestyle. Being inactive — exercising fewer than three times a week — makes you more likely to develop diabetes.
  • Family history. Having a family history of diabetes — a parent or sibling who’s been diagnosed with this condition — increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome. Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Age. Some doctors advise anyone over age 45 to be screened for diabetes. That’s because increasing age puts you at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. It’s important to remember, though, that people at any age can develop diabetes. If you’re over 45 and overweight or if you have symptoms of diabetes, talk to your doctor about a simple screening test.

Risk Factors for Gestational Diabetes

Diabetes triggered by pregnancy is called gestational diabetes mellitus or GDM, and it affects about 4% of all U.S. pregnancies. It’s caused by hormones that are produced by the placenta during pregnancy or by too little insulin. High blood sugar from the mother crosses the placenta, causing high blood sugar in the baby. That can lead to growth and development problems if left untreated. Risk factors for gestational diabetes include the following:

  • Obesity or being overweight. Being obese or overweight puts women at risk of gestational diabetes.
  • Previous glucose intolerance. A history of glucose intolerance or previous gestational diabetes increases the risk of gestational diabetes in a current pregnancy.
  • Family history. A family history of diabetes — a parent or sibling who’s been diagnosed with diabetes — increases the risk of gestational diabetes.
  • Age. The older a woman is when she becomes pregnant, the higher her risk of gestational diabetes.

Whatever your risk factors for diabetes may be, there’s a lot you can do to delay or prevent diabetes. To manage your risk of diabetes, you should:

  • Manage your blood pressure
  • Keep your weight within or near normal range
  • Get moderate exercise on most days
  • Eat a balanced diet


Diabetes Risk Factors: Genetics, Obesity, and More. 2013. Diabetes Risk Factors: Genetics, Obesity, and More. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 September 2013].

Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include:

  • Having prediabetes, which may be called impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) and/or impaired fasting glucose (IFG)
  • Being 45 or older
  • Having a family history of diabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Not exercising regularly
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having low HDL, also known as “good” cholesterol and/or high levels of triglycerides
  • Certain racial and ethnic groups (e.g., Non-Hispanic Blacks, Hispanic/Latino Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians and Alaska Natives) Again, these ethnic groups are strictly American but the theory applies to Arab ethnicities.
  • Women who had gestational diabetes, or who have had a baby weighing 9 pounds or more at birth

If you feel like you may have diabetes, speak with your doctor about getting tested.


Your Risk – American Diabetes Association®. 2013. Your Risk – American Diabetes Association®. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 September 2013].

Researchers don’t fully understand why some people develop type 2 diabetes and others don’t. It’s clear, however, that certain factors increase the risk, including:

  • Weight. Being overweight is a primary risk factor for type 2 diabetes. The more fatty tissue you have, the more resistant your cells become to insulin.
  • Fat distribution. If your body stores fat primarily in your abdomen, your risk of type 2 diabetes is greater than if your body stores fat elsewhere, such as your hips and thighs.
  • Inactivity. The less active you are, the greater your risk of type 2 diabetes. Physical activity helps you control your weight, uses up glucose as energy and makes your cells more sensitive to insulin.
  • Family history. The risk of type 2 diabetes increases if your parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes.
  • Race. Although it’s unclear why, people of certain races — including blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Asian-Americans — are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than whites are.
  • Age. The risk of type 2 diabetes increases as you get older, especially after age 45. That’s probably because people tend to exercise less, lose muscle mass and gain weight as they age. But type 2 diabetes is also increasing dramatically among children, adolescents and younger adults.
  • Prediabetes. Prediabetes is a condition in which your blood sugar level is higher than normal, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes. Left untreated, prediabetes often progresses to type 2 diabetes.
  • Gestational diabetes. If you developed gestational diabetes when you were pregnant, your risk of later developing type 2 diabetes increases. If you gave birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds (4 kilograms), you’re also at risk of type 2 diabetes.


Type 2 diabetes: Risk factors – 2013. Type 2 diabetes: Risk factors – [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 25 September 2013].